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The 5 most important players heading into game 5 of the Spurs-Nuggets series

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Who is the biggest x-factor heading into game 5?

Denver Nuggets v San Antonio Spurs-Game Three Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Bryn Forbes

Bryn Forbes is really a stand-in on this list for all of the Spurs’ shooters. Rudy Gay, Marco Belinelli, and Davis Bertans could’ve all been named here but Forbes got the nod because the first quarter will likely matter a bit more in game five than the second or third and Forbes will start the game being guarded by Jamal Murray.

During the regular season, the Spurs took the fewest three-point attempts per game but led the league in three-point percentage. Forbes isn’t going to shoot a dozen threes like some of the league’s high-profile gunners but volume isn’t the key to his impact on the game. In the two Spurs wins in this series, Forbes made two three-pointers in the opening frame. The Spurs have actually lead after the first quarter in all four games of the series so far, including both games at Pepsi Center.

If the Nuggets can hold Forbes scoreless from behind the arc in the first 12 minutes of the game, they’ll have a good chance of taking an early lead, something that might provide a bit of a psychological edge given how the pressure all seems to be shifted back onto the Spurs following game four.

Nikola Jokic

The Spurs elected not to double Jokic in the post too often in game four and they paid the price for that decision. 29 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists, and one butt-kicking later and it would be pretty shocking if Gregg Popovich decided to try that same strategy again. Instead, look for the Spurs to send one or more of their crafty guards at Jokic like they did in game one.

Jakob Poeltl has done a nice job of staying down on fakes and keeping Jokic in front of him for most of the series but Jokic has figured out his defensive weaknesses more and more as the series has gone on, using quick moves as soon as he catches the ball in the post to attack Poeltl’s slow feet and catch him off-balance to draw fouls. Throwing the double-team back out there will expose the Spurs to Jokic’s brilliant passing and Denver’s dangerous but streaky perimeter shooting, an issue that might be more risky for the Spurs at Pepsi Center.

But what choice do they have? Just look at how easily Jokic scores when he is allowed to take his time backing down his defender in the post.

Even with the hard double-team, Jokic will have to find a way to be effective as a scorer. A repeat of game one, where Jokic scored just 10 points on nine shots probably won’t be enough. Quick reads, strong moves, and an aggressive mindset are the key for Jokic forcing the defense to react to him and his will, rather than the other way around.

Torrey Craig

It’s hard to predict what Torrey Craig’s impact will be on game five. In Denver’s first win of the series, Craig played just six minutes and was a -18 while recording a single assist and no other stat. No fouls, no steals, no field-goal attempts. In game four, Craig knocked down five of seven three-point attempts and held DeMar DeRozan to a very quiet 19 points.

Craig’s athleticism and energy is needed on a starting lineup that features a lot of skill and finesse but is short on the types of chaotic hustle that Craig provides. If Jokic is a scalpel capable of operating with precision, Craig is a sledgehammer. For the lowest usage player in the rotation, Craig’s don’t-stop-sprinting-until-you-crash style appears to be just what the team needs most to balance things out.

And yet, the Spurs are probably undeterred by Craig’s hot-shooting in game four. The double-team has to come from somewhere and both Murray and Harris have proven to be deadly shooters, especially at home. Craig is a career 31% three-point shooter, just as prone to cold spells as he is hot streaks.

The Nuggets are 22-7 when Craig shoots 33% from behind the line or better. They’ve also only lost three games when Craig makes two three-pointers or more. One of those losses was the game they threw at Portland in the final week of the season. Another of the losses came against the Spurs back in December. For the Nuggets to win game five, they’ll likely need Craig to knock down at least two or three wide open kickouts from behind the arc. Do that, and the Spurs will probably just have to accept their fate.

Jamal Murray

Game three was a high-profile horror show for The Blue Arrow. Derrick White and the Spurs appeared to have exposed Murray’s two biggest weaknesses en route to a blowout win: inability to get the rim off of the dribble, and an inability to keep his man in front of him on defense. White scored 36 points and every single one of them was as loud as the “Go Spurs Go” chances that rained down from the bat-infested rafters of AT&T center.

Murray bounced back in game four. His 24 points weren’t nearly as loud but that might’ve been the best part of Murray’s response. Had he approached that game with the mind-frame of trying to settle some personal score, the Nuggets wouldn't have had the same momentum heading into the final stretch of this series, even if the team managed to pull out a win. Much like in game two, when Murray’s 21 point fourth quarter saved the day, the Nuggets would’ve just put a band-aid over what looked like a mortal wound.

Instead, the Nuggets won game four behind stellar defense, a smart, balanced attack that relied on execution and hustle, and the same resolve that helped lead this upstart team to 54 regular-season wins.

In game five, Murray will need to build on the groundwork he laid in game four. His 8-14 shooting was much more valuable than his 24 points. His one turnover far more impressive than his six assists. Replicate the +15 plus-minus and the Nuggets will return to San Antonio on Thursday looking to close out the series.

Derrick White

Few people could’ve predicted that Derrick White would be the MVP of the series through three games. The Spurs are LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan’s team and the team goes as they go.

Or so we thought.

White had dominated Murray in their head to head matchup in all but one of the first 12 quarters of the series, culminating in a game three that ranks as the best single-game performance of this series so far. It wasn’t just that he scored 36 points, he has consistently kept Murray from getting clean looks off of the dribble and cut off the paint while being opportunistic in forcing Murray to pick up his dribble in tight spots.

White will be at the heart of two of the most interesting matchups in game five: defending Murray, and trying to get to the rim while being guarded by Harris. Win both of those battles and the Spurs will likely get the win. Win one and it’s anybody’s game. And how is this for an x-factor? White is a +32 in the Spurs’ two wins and a -28 in their two losses.

It’s fitting that this year’s token “NBA TV series” features two teams that rely on so many underdogs and that the single most important player is someone as perennially overlooked as White. He might be the head of the snake but he’s the player who tilts the scales in the Spurs’ favor by being the player most capable of canceling out two of Denver’s biggest weapons in Murray and Harris. Shut him down, and it’s hard to see the Spurs winning, even with big performances from DeRozan and Aldridge.